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THERE WAS A TIME WHEN TREES SPOKE...
Since time immemorial, the Circassian native tribes did not follow a script or a holy book, nor erected praying temples, but rather, they have formed an unwritten philosophy based on their collective outlook on life, and worshiped in the arms of nature. Generally, the Circassians combined their native creed with their oral code of conduct known as Xabze. Entwined together, it was impossible to separate their spiritual practice from daily life; as if performing daily duties in a certain manner, which Xabze dictated, reflected their spiritual beliefs.
Xabze - Xa: many, vast or space, Bze: language, literally meaning, the language of the cosmos.
Xabze, Xa: many, vast or space, Bze: language, literally meaning, the language of the cosmos is an oral unwritten code of conduct, which incorporates all aspects of life, dictating behavior from birth to death. It is not an explicit dogma nor a separate creed, but can be closely described as an art of life.
This ‘system’ was built on a static base, which acted as a foundation to the ever changing entity called life. The idea is that Xabze is ever evolving to the meet the needs of life progression while maintaining the core of traditions. It demonstrates to humans a path to cultivate a harmonious life with all living entities. It is important to emphasize that Xabze is not a fear based system, it is not centered on penalty, capital punishment or prohibitions, but rather, it is a path towards balanced life and awareness.
Xabze teachings are innumerable, however, the main static tenants are respect (to all living entities), endurance, bravery, honesty, high etiquette and chivalry. The absence of fear, and the emphasis on to be whom you are as nature dictates, yet accountable to no one but oneself, was further a large aspect of this system. Self-discipline is yet another important feature of Xabze, it can be somehow related to a stoic approach in life where it demands to rejoice quietly, grieve without tears, and face pain and death fearlessly.
There was also no belief in the afterlife (Yasar, 2014), it seems that the native Circassians considered life as an experience of the here and now, with no desire for a reward after death. This is further fortified by the concept of Psapa (good deed), which illustrates the idea that one preforms deeds for the sake of the deed itself rather than reward.
Xabze was designed to align with every aspect of life including hunting, prayer, marriage, domestic, agriculture, social, and companionship to name a few. It comprised every detail acting as a web joining every facet under one umbrella, and gradually developing as the nature of life progresses. Thus, this system acted as a bridge attempting to forge a sophisticated bond between humans, and more importantly a relation with the surrounding environment, namely nature.
Xabze was not taught, but it was orally conveyed steadily through the ages, and was imparted by example inspired by the environment and circumstances, and it continuously changed and modified according to human progression. This ‘system’ was able to establish an eco-social structure, to thrive in a congenial manner within the entity known as life. It may be possible that Xabze was shaped thru Animism, which is regarded the earliest spiritual creed amongst the indigenous Circassians.
Animism, the belief that all entities enclosed a spirit was probably the native Circassians first conviction, and the closest description to the oldest known Circassian belief system, anteceding and later merging with polytheism (Jaimoukha, A. 2001, p.139). Animism amongst the native Circassians meant that nature occupied the most central place. The indigenous people of the mid and Northwest Caucasus believed that the whole world and nature were spiritualized, trees had souls, and forests and groves were living beings. The ancient Circassians placed the tree at the center of their worldview. The forests and groves surrounding the Circassian settlements, until the second half of the 19th century, served as public shrines and places of worship. They were guarded, and an act of damaging the forest was a serious crime, and retribution befell the doer and his offspring. It was believed that if one chops-off a tree it caused the destruction of the entire clan, and a destroyed grove caused the death of the entire tribe to which the committer belonged to (Bashmakov, I. 2015).
Circassian language show that all living things are the bearers of the soul, and everything has an indefinite spiritual origin.
In addition to forests and trees, some animals, land, lakes, rivers and mountains, and other natural objects were considered sacred. Sacred animals amongst the native Circassians were bulls, goats, boars, deer, and dogs and wolves were alleged as the ancestors and patrons of the tribe. The spider also acted as a totem insect, it was revered and it was strictly forbidden to kill, and the committer may suffer retribution (Bashmakov, I. 2015).
It is also noteworthy to add that Circassian language preserved many references, which point to the importance of the soul as a principal source, and its existence in all beings. The word soul in Circassian language is Pse, and this word is the core for many terms and expressions that expound on the Circassian view of the world, for example:
These are a segment from the overall view of the native Circassian psyche translated into a language. The late Circassian scholar Shorten Askerbi relates: “Circassian language show that all living things are the bearers of the soul, and everything has an indefinite spiritual origin.”
Essentially, the attitude towards nature among the peoples of the Caucasus was one of high reverence. As Makhotlova MA, Shautsukova L.Kh. note, “The most important quality in the 'man-nature' system in the traditional culture of the Circassians can be expressed as preserving consciousness towards nature, which is the most important component of the attitude to the world in general. Nature in its context is a full-fledged participant in the dialogue of life. The main idea expressed is: nature is dealt with is not a 'subject-object', but a 'subject-subject', that is, the level of recognition of the 'self' in nature." (Bashmakov, I. 2015).
Polytheism amongst the Circassians is reminiscent of that in ancient Greece. It was believed that the world was governed and obeyed by multiple gods. T-ha (T-heschxwe) the supreme god, headed the divine cast, and subdivided into groups of gods and goddesses, in which each performed specific command. Cults, rituals and supplications were formed around each deity.
T-ha, the supreme god, came some of the main deities included:
Some of the goddesses included:
At later stages starting in the 6th century, Christianity entered Circassian lands during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Islam began spreading in the late 15th century, by Ghirai, the Khan of Tatars who forced many Circassian (Kabardian) leaders to convert to Islam post their defeat (Jaimoukha, A. 2001, p.150). However, Christianity and Islam’s influence was frail against the age-old highlander psyche and inherited system. The late Circassian scholar Dr. Amjad Jaimoukha explains in his book, “The Circassian, A Handbook”:
“Religious beliefs had until the early part of the 19th century been centered round a backbone of polytheism, paganism and animism with some Christian and Muslim influences. It maybe that the nature of their country and the set ways the Circassians played a significant part in ingraining the native beliefs and marginalizing religious imports. Monotheistic religions have had little bearing on the Circassian way of life. In the latter part of the middle ages the Circassians were caught in the middle of the power struggle between Orthodox Russia and Muslim Turkey. They switched their religious allegiance very readily, converting from Islam to Christianity and vice versa, as circumstances demanded and for convenience.”
(Jaimoukha, A. 2001, p.137).
It is intriguing how the ancient dogma had secured such a resilient foothold. There seems to have been a subliminal deep-rooted liaison that was formed directly between man and nature, and this relationship reveals their inherent association and veneration to trees. The nature of the native Circassian system of beliefs was very eclectic in nature and is knotted between reality and mythology. It is a blend of numerous philosophies extending from ancient times and mixing with newly met beliefs. However, the core usually remained intact.
Zaina’s collage art focuses on assembling many worlds into one, usually led by a protagonist; she focuses on mixing world cultures, architecture, motifs, archaeology, arts and nature into a single portrait.
Tree veneration is the essence of the Circassian way of life and Circassiansm, and it was the turning point which transformed the primitive human, into one with understanding and appreciation towards nature and his relation to it.
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